Today the winter sky is like the coats of wolves, soft clouds hover low, and fog has settled into the lower recesses of the foothills. The valley landscape is cloaked in white, and beyond the snowy foreground there lies only a palette of gray. The loyal mountains loom, their spruce-treed slopes encrusted with snow, and the only sign of life is an unkindness of ravens that noisily crosses the big hollow.
Hundreds of elk have descended from the high country and have chosen to bed down, at least for today, on the Paradise Mesa. There’s an intricate tale of night pressed into the newly fallen snow, and I follow the path of coyote tracks, a loping trio of them, which shared my same wintry path just hours before.
I have been questioned and derided for many walks and long-distance treks I’ve taken, but the criticism fails to dissuade me. I recently received a text message from a friend asking, “How in the hell do you hike in the winter and why would you want to? LOL!” I didn’t take his mocking query to heart, nor did I attempt to explain my desire to walk. Yet, another friend once asked, “Why would you walk when you can ride a horse?”
For me, the choice to travel by foot has been a transforming one. I only began to enjoy walking and hiking when I was 40-something, I had always been a runner and believed walking was too slow and boring. Once I quit running, it did not take long to discover that walking and hiking free the mind. The unhurried pace restores things to their natural balance; time slows down, and the intricacies of the land underfoot become an introspective journey.
John Muir, the influential naturalist, whose 200-plus-mile trek I hiked in 2012, believed that “In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.” One of my favorite poets, William Wordsworth, gathered much of his inspiration through his long walks and produced lovely reflections such as “Sweet Was the Walk” and “An Evening Walk.” His observations are just as meditative as they are enchanting.
As I stop and look out across the open, snow-covered pastures, I visually trace the wide swaths where the elk have traveled, their hoof prints in the snow like music played upon the earth. Winding and graceful, the patterns of their course play in my mind the timeless song of life.
The winter breeze stings my cheeks, and as I inhale I can feel the mini crystals forming in the warmth of my nostrils. At some point in the early morning a snowshoe hare crossed this snowy trail and evaded the three coyotes, for the impressions in the snow left by the wild canines,continue uphill. Above the trail, massive granite outcroppings gaze upon the valley below like ancient gray soldiers. They make this moment feel infinite.
There is a proven relationship between walking and thinking. The rhythm of the body seems to free the mind, and solitary walking is an ideal exercise for spiritual awareness and enlightenment. Spending time afoot and close to the land establishes perspective and is an excellent way to remind ourselves of the vastness to which we are connected. Native Americans preferred sitting and sleeping on the ground because they realized the importance of staying connected to the earth.
“That is why the old Indian still sits upon the earth instead of propping himself up and away from its life giving forces. For him, to sit or lie upon the ground is to be able to think more deeply and to feel more keenly. He can see more clearly into the mysteries of life and come closer in kinship to other lives about him,” Chief Luther Standing Bear explained. In my own opportunities to take long treks, I’ve walked the earth for many days, slept on the ground and swam in its lakes. I have found indescribable renewal and contentment.
Someone asked me the other day what I wished for in the coming year, and all I could say was, “I need more walking and hiking.” As the ancient Greeks declared, “Solvitur ambulando”: “It is solved by walking.” I concur.
An old Scottish legend says that angels whisper to a man who goes out for a walk in the winter wood. Or perhaps Soren Kierkegaard, the great Danish philosopher, got it right when he proclaimed, “I have walked myself into my best thoughts.”
Winter offers its own unique gifts, and beneath the colorless mantle of white and gray is the promise of spring. A long winter walk is not as ridiculous as it sounds; it may be one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself, and it could be the most rewarding resolution you ever make.
Margaret Reckling lives in Woody Creek and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.